“How does the employer know?” Darla asked.
“It would appear that the Intuits, the ones that listen to the woods, no longer hear their presence.”
“Are we discharged then?”
The old man massaged the knuckles of his fingers before speaking. “Yes,” he said. “Until next I need you.”
Darla, with some difficulty, managed to clap her hands together in front of her chest. She grimaced at the pain in her arm. “Thank you, daimyo,” she said. She got up to leave the pagoda. Before she’d reached the door, however, she heard his voice again.
“How certain are you?”
Their eyes met. Darla remained silent. The man nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “Let us not take the employer’s satisfaction as a signal of the end of the assignment. We shall remain vigilant.”
“Yes, daimyo.” She turned and left the room.
The slate was cleared. All existing orders were shelved, current clients mollified with the explanation that the shop was getting a major overhaul—updating to the latest and greatest in machine-part manufacture. Production was ceased on every machine that, to Unthank’s best estimation, wouldn’t be absolutely necessary to anything but the task at hand. Molds were pulled from their cradles and stored; every nook and cranny was scoured of any contaminant that might compromise the manufacturing process. All the orphans were pulled from their normal assigned spots and put on call; he couldn’t afford to delegate any responsibility to these urchins. Absolute perfection, at every step, was required to create something so meticulous and demanding as the Möbius Cog. If he managed it—and he was still leery that it was even possible—it would undoubtedly be the crowning achievement of his career.
Desdemona watched the proceedings silently. She helped him when she could, though it was clear that this was a mission that he himself would have to achieve. She brought him refilled jugs of water on the shop floor; she carried away his half-eaten sandwiches from his desk; she woke him at three in the morning when he’d fallen asleep on the pile of notes he’d amassed. She didn’t bother bringing up his betrayal of her dream—of the dream she’d thought they shared—and stewed on it, wordlessly.
The machine shop was a ghost of its former self, removed of the hubbub of the working children. Now it was only Unthank on the shop floor, surrounded by a few orphans who served merely to do such menial tasks as carry the sheaves of paperwork he’d created in his research. Working into the early hours of the morning, he crafted the wax molds that would eventually be burned away to give birth to the three twisted gears, the orbiting rings of the Cog’s magnetic core. A vat of molten brass bubbled and smoked at the far end of the shop, awaiting its moment when it would be carefully poured into the prepared ceramic die. From the outside, the windows of the Unthank Home glowed bright orange; inside, the heat and light could bring to mind some religious zealot’s image of the Underworld, where eternal punishment is meted out to the unholy. Hephaestus himself would not seem out of place in this cauldron of fire, among the clanging of iron and the churn of hydraulic machinery. As the days wore on and the nights melted away like so much molten ore, Unthank began to see himself in an almost godlike light. He was the creator, the maker. He was breathing life, sacred life, into the coldness of these raw materials. The God of Judeo-Christian belief had created the universe himself; Unthank saw multitudes contained in every tooth, sweep, and angle of the Cog’s mechanic. God had seven days to make the universe; Unthank had been given five.
And he was determined to beat the spread.
Return of the Overdwellers
The floor of the chamber was alive.
At least, that was how it seemed. It undulated with the activity of a multitude of living things, all set on different activities and preparations. It was an army of mole knights, all similarly equipped with darning needle swords and bottle-cap armor, and they numbered in, perhaps, the high thousands. Prue had gasped when she’d turned the corner, following the lead of the mole knight, whose name they learned was Sir Henry Mole. Or, rather, “SIR HENRY MOLE” as he’d said in his inimitable voice when he’d finally ceased his prostrations and introduced himself.
(“My name’s Prue,” she’d said in response. “This is Curtis.”
“And this is Septimus,” said Curtis, aware of the rat’s familiar feet returned to his shoulder.
“PRUE, CURTIS, AND SEPTIMUS: BLESSED BE THY NAMES. THE BELLS OF THE OVERGROUND RING WITH HEAVENLY MUSIC AT THE UTTERING. I GENUFLECT TO THEE.”
“Please don’t,” said Curtis. “I mean, you don’t really need to.”
“I think you’ve genuflected enough,” added P
“That’s a mole,” observed Septimus, who’d by now realized that they’d not been in danger of being overtaken by rat-eating snakes.
“MY AMAZEMENT AT YOUR SUBLIME PRESENCES INHIBITS ME FROM DOING OTHERWISE, O GREAT OVERDWELLERS.” However, taking the two children’s instruction as scripture, he’d stopped with his bowing and groveling. “WILL YOU ACCOMPANY THIS HUMBLE KNIGHT TO THE FRONT, FOR AN AUDIENCE WITH HIGH MASTER COMMANDER TIMOTHY, ESTEEMED LEADER OF THE KNIGHTS UNDERWOOD?”
“Sure,” said Prue. Curtis was staying out of it; he assumed Prue had some sort of plan. While they were following the little mole through the twists and turns of the passageways, however, she admitted to her real motivation. “Seems like a good idea,” she’d said. “Besides, he’s just a mole. What can go wrong?”)
But nothing had prepared them for the sight of the entire army, the mass of little furry black bodies stretching on to the boundary of their vision in the dark chamber. When the moles had detected the presence of the two humans and the rat, the entire mob turned their snouts in their direction. The three of them were greeted by a multitude of gasps and “HUZZAHS” and general pronouncements of amazement at the arrived deities—though they were all clearly blind: The fur on their small, pointed faces was unbroken by the presence of what could be considered eyes.